CHARLESTON, W.Va. — One of the things that first attracted me to the game of golf is the sport’s inherent simplicity. There are no frills, no unnecessary moving parts. There are no teammates, no coaches and no officials — just a player, a club and a ball. Success or failure rests in your own hands; it is competition in the truest sense of the word.
I was attracted to golf video games for this same reason. Early golf games I played on the PC stayed true to the sport’s less-is-more nature, keeping the focus squarely on the battle between the player and the course. There were no annoying commentators, few fancy graphics and a minimal amount of presentation. While others were turned off by the undeniable lack of bells and whistles, I relished in their absence.
And then along came EA Sports and its “Tiger Woods” franchise. The polar opposite of the golf games I loved, the “Tiger Woods” games were full of style and substance, but much of that came at the expense of a realistic experience on the course. Things like power swings and stat-boosting apparel became the norm, as did the absurdly low scores those features allowed. I’ll readily admit that I enjoyed the “Tiger Woods” titles — not because it was the golf game I longed to play, but because it was the only golf game I could play. The series did make an attempt to return to some semblance of reality later in its lifespan, but it never approached the true sim experiences I remembered from my youth.
With EA leaving its clubs in the closet this year, the digital links were wide open for another game to step up to the tee. “The Golf Club,” created by Canadian developer HB Studios, has arrived to fill that void. While it’s not perfect, it does take video-game golf back to its sim roots. And for that, I couldn’t be happier.
Indeed, “The Golf Club” is very much a bare-bones golfing experience in the vein of those old-school PC games I played as a kid. Jumping into a round reveals no licensed players or courses, no player ratings and no stat-altering equipment. There is no commentary (save for a slightly annoying caddy, who can be muted) and no flashy graphics or replays. There are no fans lining the fairways or surrounding the greens. Like golf itself, it’s just you, your clubs and the ball.
On the course, “The Golf Club” is as close to a true sim as I’ve played since the days of “Links” on PC. Whereas previous console games instilled a grip-it-and-rip-it mentality, I found myself patiently plotting out each and every shot I took in “The Golf Club.” An emphasis is placed on accuracy and keeping the ball in the fairway — no easy task considering there are no meters to indicate shot power or accuracy, only a breakdown of your swing after the fact.
The same holds true for putting, which was far and away the most frustrating aspect of my first hours with “The Golf Club.” I could read the greens well enough, but judging distance was an entirely different story. I left long putts short. I sent short putts sailing past the hole. Even gimmes were no gimme when I first began playing. But just like with real golf, I steadily improved after much practice and now feel confident with a putter in my hands, though I’m still apt to whiff on at least one putt every round.
While there are no power swings or spin indicators, you do have control over your shot’s height and can add draw or fade. These come with a price, however, as the sweet spot for hitting the ball flush dramatically decreases the more you use these shot-sculpting tools. It adds up a lovely game of risk and reward, one in which the penalty more often than not results in a dropped shot. As such, there was a real feeling of accomplishment every time I executed a quality shot, which honestly wasn’t all that often.
“The Golf Club” nails the experience on the course, but that’s not all it has to offer. The Greg Norman Course Creator allows users to craft their own holes and courses, setting everything from yardage and pin placement to the depth of bunkers and speed of the greens. Created courses can then be shared online for others to play and rate. The course creator allows from some surprisingly realistic designs and with strong community involvement, there’s going to be no shortage of creative and challenging courses to play. I’d venture to say some will spend as much time in this mode as they will on the course.
Like the presentation, the selection of game modes is rather bare-bones, especially offline. Up to four players can compete in local multiplayer matches, and there are online multiplayer tournaments and tours to accommodate more users with plenty of options to customize the experience to your liking. But players hoping to find any sort of offline career mode or tours or tournaments will find none of those here, which is a big let down. Those playing online will notice a slight delay when facing off against an opponent in real-time, but you can also play against the ghosts of actual players to mimic the feeling of playing against a live person (minus the good-natured ribbing that comes with a round of golf.)
Visually, “The Golf Club” is a mixed bag. Many of the courses look fantastic, especially during the fly-overs that precede each hole. Player models, however, aren’t nearly as attractive. The animations can be less than fluid and some distracting screen-tearing was quickly alleviated by activating a setting in the options menu, but all and all it’s passable. Besides, if I can’t have both, I would much rather have a great-playing game than a great-looking game any day and that’s what “The Golf Club” provides.
If “Tiger Woods” is virtual golf on the PGA Tour, “The Golf Club” is virtual golf at your favorite local public course. It’s a laid-back approach to a laid-back sport, which is what I’ve been clamoring for for years. It isn’t going to appeal to everyone, especially those accustomed to a “Tiger”-ized version of the sport. But those seeking a solid golf sim won’t find anything better on consoles.
“The Golf Club”
Developer: HB Studios
Publisher: HB Studios
Available for: Xbox One, PC ($34.99)
Rating: E for everyone
Reach Jeff Rider at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5122 or follow @Gazette_Gamer on Twitter.